On the east end of Vancouver, one of the city’s oldest neighborhood, there is an unusual sight: one six-story building has a soaring totem and Native longhouse on top. The building, the Skwachàys Lodge, is an attractive Aboriginal-art hotel and represents a unique milestone for indigenous people. Each of the 18 boutique hotel units is decorated in different tasteful indigenous themes. The lobby includes the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery where Native art can be purchased. Furthermore, visitors can participate in traditional sweat lodge and smudging ceremonies.
But it gets even better. Skwachàys Lodge is also a residence for Native artists, who would otherwise be impoverished and at risk of homelessness. All the profit from the hotel and the art gallery goes to subsidizing the 24 live/work suites for the artists. It’s an astonishing symbiosis of boutique hotel and low-income housing. This social enterprise is unique in North America, and it’s winning praise.
Two years in the making, the Lodge officially opened on October 16, 2014 with a traditional naming ceremony by Chief Ian Campbell, the Hereditary Chief of the Squamish Nation on whose territory the Lodge sits. “Skwachàys” (pronounced Skwatch-eyes) is the traditional name of the area and refers to the spring waters that once covered the locality.
The idea was born in 2012 when Jon Zwickel, a third generation hotelier, happened to visit the site and suggested the concept of combining a Native-themed hotel and low-income housing. Subsequently, he worked hard — for no pay — to make it succeed. He approached six top interior decorators and asked if they would volunteer to work with Native artists. He was astonished when all six agreed. The Native artists created the vision for each of the rooms, and then worked with the designers to bring the visions to fruition. Each of the rooms is unique with strong motifs and names such as The Tlingit Hat Suite, Sea Kingdom Suite and the Northern Lights Suite. They feature original carvings and paintings.
“That I could actually make a difference and help alleviate poverty is incredible,” Zwickel told ICMN. “It transformed my life.” He continues to provide expertise, at no charge, on the operation of the hotel.
The Kayachtn, or Welcome Room adjoins the lobby and offers sitting space among dozens of unique aboriginal art pieces including a bold mural and an imposing carved communal table. Currently, the hotel offers breakfast and light fare along with regional wines and Canadian craft beers, but a restaurant featuring west coast First Nations cuisine is planned.
Visitors are drawn to the penthouse and roof where they can immerse themselves in Native culture. The sweat lodge, located beside a stunning waterfall, a totem pole, and a mural of a mountainside, is used for spiritual cleansing. The lodge is shaped like a womb and it is dark inside. The traditional drums are the mother’s heartbeat. The Skwachàys Lodge uses a kiln rather than actual fire because of fire regulations.
Elder Old Hands during smudging ceremony.
In an adjoining room, traditional smudge ceremonies are performed by Elder Old Hands of the Shoshone First Nation. He burns white sage in a large polished oyster shell creating an aromatic smoke. Then he circles the person being cleansed waving smoke using eagle feathers while he quietly chants in his language. It’s a moving ceremony.
Skwachàys Lodge is owned by the non-profit Vancouver Native Housing Society. “This is an exciting project,” said Dave Eddy, the president. “We are providing housing relief for a traditionally impoverished segment of the population, but, more importantly, we are also helping them forge careers and stand on their own feet.” Seminars are presented at the Lodge on topics such as financial literacy and how to write grant proposals. The hotel also provides direct employment; six of the eight staff are Aboriginal.
A large basement area is being converted into a workshop for residents. Visitors can watch the artists working, meet the person who designed the room they’re staying in, and participate in carving and drawing workshops.
Gary Morin, a Metis from Saskatchewan and a resident in the facility, was enthusiastic about the Lodge and how it has helped him. “This place provides a home I can afford and also is an outlet for selling my art.”
Skwachàys Lodge is located at the intersection of Vancouver’s historic Gastown and Chinatown in the downtown Eastside. While the area has experienced poverty, it is now undergoing a revitalization with numerous nearby restaurants, bars, and boutiques.
Mural Kayachtn welcome room
Maggie Edwards, the hotel’s general manager, said, “Every visitor who stays here has high praise for the hotel and promises to return.” It’s a very auspicious start.
To Book or For a Virtual Visit: Skwachays.com.
This story was originally published October 23, 2014.